Interview: Mark Shenton on fringe theatre

In the second part of Tom Wicker’s interview with Mark Shenton, the theatre critic and journalist explains why he accepted a position on the Off-West End ‘Offies’ Awards panel, talks about his experiences of producing a show on the London fringe and reveals what he’s looking forward to seeing in the new season.

You were the first critic to accept a position on the Off-West End Awards judging panel. Why did you agree to take part?

I already knew Sofie Mason – there was a personal connection – and I really admire her passion, dedication and selflessness in promoting a sector of theatre that doesn’t really get enough media coverage. So, definitely fills a hole. I’m also a huge off-West End fan. I go to between seven and ten shows a week and quite a lot of these will be on the fringe. Like the Peter Brook Empty Space Awards – of which I’m also a judge, along with Lyn Gardner, Dominic Cavendish and Fiona Mountford – the Offies give recognition to theatres and plays that don’t get the big awards at events like the Oliviers. So I was happy to throw my hat into the ring.

You clearly have a hectic schedule. How do you manage to see everything?

Inevitably, you can’t. For example, the earliest that I’ll be able to see Ragtime is 25 September – but I’m going. I have a particular passion for musical theatre, so I try to go along to all the off-West End musicals. There’s some thrilling stuff going on. The Hired Man at the Landor Theatre is one of the greatest productions of that show that I’ve seen. The fringe should definitely be supported in that sense.

As well as reviewing off-West End shows, you produced one last year – Shrunk. How did that come about?

It was sort of an accident. I was friends with Charlotte Eilenberg, the Olivier Award-winning writer of The Lucky Ones, and she mentioned that she had this play in her bottom drawer, a two-hander, but no one to produce it. Separately, Adam Spreadbury-Maher, who ran the Cock Tavern, got in touch and asked if I knew of any plays by established playwrights who hadn’t been able to get a second play on. So I put them in touch with each other and went along to their initial meeting, where it was suggested that I might produce. I’d produced student shows 20-odd years ago at Cambridge and thought it could be a wheeze to see a show from the inside out. I agreed before I’d even read the play.

How did you approach it?

I decided early on that I didn’t want to go down the traditional profit-share route because, by and large, actors don’t participate in any profit at all. There are huge issues surrounding the fringe and the fact that it’s more or less unpaid labour. I also wanted to attract a really good cast. So I sought sponsorship. I happened to know Peter Wolff, who runs the Peter Wolff Theatre Trust. Their mission is to support new writing – in fact, they’ve just donated a lot to Hampstead Theatre’s ‘Hampstead Downstairs’ programme – and they provided enough money to enable us to pay two actors an above-equity salary for three weeks of rehearsal and a four-week run. Charlotte got a royalty based on gross and everyone else on the production team, from the lighting designer through to the set designer and me, was on the dreaded profit share. I learnt a few lessons from that, one of which is that there’s no such thing as profit share. Not when the theatre takes a huge chunk for itself, because certain people are salaried.

Did doing the show make you aware of any other issues specific to off-West End theatre?

The other major issue I discovered was that, although I made sure that we paid the actors, the people we really should have been taking care of was the technicians – because it counts for nothing if you don’t have good technical support. Many of the performances were compromised by problems with the clunky technical equipment, which even failed on the opening night when I had all my critical colleagues in, from Billington and Spencer to Hitchings. We had to go up over half an hour late and my poor playwright was virtually hyperventilating with anxiety. We also had a constantly changing roster of sound and lighting operators through the run. It might have been better to have found some budget to hire in better equipment, and pay someone to operate every show rather than have someone new on the desk all the time.

When people praise the fringe as a powerful force, should there be more conversation about the actual theatre space itself?

Yes, absolutely. One of the things about studio environments – and there’s been growing recognition of this in recent years – is that they create an electrifying atmosphere. For example, the best theatre at the National is The Cottesloe and one of the most popular theatres in London is the Donmar Warehouse. With 250 seats, you’re right there, on top of the action, with Jude Law only metres away. That’s never a bad thing, especially when he’s got his shirt off.

Leaving aside the charms of Jude Law, this chimes with a recent blog in which you wrote that the more intimate space of off-West End venues is well suited to musicals. Is that an advantage over the West End?

Yes, but it comes at a big cost – literally. Putting on a musical sometimes involves 30 people and a big cast. It’s hard to pay that number of people in a big theatre and, on the fringe, it’s virtually impossible. Musicals are rarely viable in an off-West End setting, and yet they respond well to it. Of course, the drama schools are churning out kids a dime a dozen, all of whom want experience and work. That’s the counter-argument about the fringe: that it’s a loss leader. Because people are doing it for their careers, not getting paid is the price that they pay. But too often the audience is paying to see shows where the money is ending up with the people who run the theatre instead of with the actors or the crew. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Would you ever review a fringe show differently to a West End show? Or are you blind to the distinction?

I don’t think you can ever be blind to where a show is happening, because where it’s happening influences your response to it. For example, seeing The Kitchen at The Royal Court Theatre, in a reconfigured space, made it a different experience to seeing it in the Olivier Theatre at the National. It was the same seeing The Hired Man in close-up at the Landor: it’s a powerful show, but the power was magnified by performing it in that space. So while you don’t need to make the distinction between West End and fringe, I do find that usually – not always – the latter can deliver a more intense experience.

The physical space of a theatre is clearly important to you. Do you have any favourite off-West End venues in that regard?

I have a special relationship with The Union Theatre, partly because I work around the corner. I live in Borough and rent an office a block away from the theatre. I love the passion with which Sasha Regan runs it. She’s been doing it for 12 years, she’s made no money from it, but she loves it. Her husband is up a ladder, in his shorts, fixing the roof almost every day. He has the best legs in London. The Union also has that fantastic coffee shop at the front, which I go to all the time. But what’s really great about it is that it has that black-box space, which is endlessly reconfigured. Every time you go in you wonder, “What’s it going to be like this time?” I love spaces that are versatile.

Like the Print Room? The set for Snake in the Grass, earlier this year, was extraordinary.

Exactly. [Co-artistic director] Lucy Bailey’s partner is William Dudley, who’s a brilliant set designer, so design is huge there. Necessity being the mother of invention, it’s amazing just how resourceful people can be on the fringe. But, of course, it’s very much personality driven. For example, the life in the King’s Head died with Dan Crawford, who was an incredible, eccentric man who created an amazing space there over 40 years ago. He was really the founding father of pub theatre in London. Despite endless West End transfers, he was still behind the bar most nights, madly still pricing drinks in pounds and shillings, and also inside the theatre operating the follow spot. Even, one night that I was there, nonchalantly picking up the lens that fell out of it – narrowly missing a customer – and putting it back in. The same is true of Sasha. She’s raising a young family, but manages to be at The Union all the time.”

Does anything else distinguish off-West End for you?

The fringe can also be a fertile breeding ground for the stars of the future – people like Thea Sharrock, or Stephen Daldry before her, who ran The Gate before going on to direct at the National and worldwide. I remember seeing Daldry tearing tickets at The Gate. He hasn’t changed since. He’s still that lovely man, even though he’s now a billionaire. So the fringe can be a place of great training and great work. On the other hand, it can also be a place of terrible work. You’ve got to be careful where you go.

You’ve blogged extensively about licences, health and safety and profit-share issues. Are there other challenges that you see facing off-West End theatre in the short term?

There’s always going to be an appetite for fringe theatre, but one of the big issues is cost. There’s a natural ceiling to how much someone is going to pay to sit in a scruffy room above the Old Red Lion pub. They’re never going to pay £40 or £50 to do that. But to make it viable these venues have to charge that sort of money. And yet, it’s the West End that’s out-pricing itself, now and probably forever. At £70 or £80 a ticket for a musical, for instance, it’s in danger of cannibalising itself.

You spend a fair amount of time in New York. Do you see much off Broadway? How does it compare to fringe theatre here?

I tend to go to more Broadway than off-Broadway shows. Interestingly, one of the big failings of New York is that it doesn’t have an equivalent of the National, although there are venues that are similar to the Almeida or the Donmar. I think we have a more vibrant and mainstream fringe, because off-Broadway is effectively commercial theatre by another name. Everything has to make money in a way that, here, the fringe doesn’t. And, of course, our subsidised theatres don’t need to make a profit either.

Is there anything off-West End that you’re particularly keen to see in the upcoming theatre season?

I’m looking forward to The Union’s productions of The Baker’s Wife and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Both failed in the West End but they have scores that are worth hearing again. I’m also interested to see A Clockwork Orange at Stratford East. The RSC’s stage version was awful, but Stratford East is an exciting venue and has been entirely reconfigured for this. There’s also Ghetto Klown. I missed John Leguizamo’s latest one-man show on Broadway earlier this year, so it will be good to get the chance to catch it at the far more intimate Charing Cross Theatre.

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